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Survivors. Right in my backyard. Had it never occurred to me I wasn’t the only one smart enough to beat the flesh-eaters, or had I not wanted to know? (And what the fuck does that say about me?)

“Flesh-eaters can’t swim?”

“Any animal can swim,” Theresa replies. “Operating sails or oars is a more advanced skill. But it’s only a matter of time.”

As I know from my own recent near-death experience.

Theresa rows us up to the dock, tossing a line to the folks waiting for us. A broad-chested, bearded man reaches down to help her from the boat, and she beams at him. Franny jumps onto the dock with a bark and is soon lost in the crowd.

Levi and I follow.

Easing down from orange to yellow alert, I become aware of the smell of roasting meat. There’s a cluster of fire dishes near the edge of the dock. Whatever’s cooking is the size of a chicken, but it’s not chicken.

“You’re still finding meat?” I ask.

“Usually it finds us,” replies the bearded man. The fact I’m starting to hear strains of Hotel California must be showing in my face, because he adds, “Nutria. They go after our garbage and our vegetables.”

Basically an oversized rat. They’re prolific as only the invasive can be, and they love the waterfront. It’s getting harder and harder to remember the days when I would have been disgusted by this. I’m transfixed by the sizzle of juices dripping into the fire. The golden-brown crust that reminds me of Sunday dinner at my parents’. 

The others are keeping their distance until a woman steps forward to work me over with a hard gaze. At least six feet tall, she’s bad-ass in a way a pixie like me can only dream of. She’s also got a bow in her hand, and I suspect she played a key role in tonight’s dinner. Which is probably why she’s not thrilled to see us.

She flips a blond braid over her shoulder. “So this is them. They got anything good?”

While I’m trying to work out why the hell everyone seems to know who we are, Levi steps around me.

“Sasha.”

The Amazon’s eyes go wide for a nanosecond before narrowing again. “T said she was bringing a healer. Never entered my mind. Thought you were gone for good.”

“I’m glad to see you’re well,” Levi replies.

She lets out a bark of laughter, and her finger works over the tip of her bow, where the string attaches.

I’ve just about had all I can take of being the only one who has no fucking clue what’s going on when Theresa says, “Old friends, here are new friends: Levi and Mila. I’d like a few minutes private council with them, but then we’ll join you all for supper.”

She motions us to follow her. Levi and Sasha have got their own private council going on, apparently via telepathy.

“Healer,” I grunt at him.

He blinks and looks at me. I raise my eyebrows, and he joins me as I turn to follow Theresa down a narrow dock that creates an alley between two rows of houses. 

“Friend of yours?” I murmur.

“Sasha was part of Paladin.”

“Paladin. You mean she’s a Viking clone too?”

“Yes.”

“You never told me you had a sister.”

I’m joking, mainly because everything’s gotten way too tense in the last half hour. My life has been straightforward for a long time now: kill or be killed. I forgot how fucking messy people are.

But Levi takes me seriously.

“She’s not my sister.”

And with that single, spare reply he communicates a world of shit. My Viking bodyguard has a past.

“She’s pissed because you left?” To babysit me.

I don’t get enlightened, because Theresa stops and opens a door on our left. “Here we are, friends.”

The house is smaller than the others, and more like an old boathouse, with dark, weathered wood and a moonlit rooftop that appears to be hosting at least three kinds of moss.

She flicks on a lamp — solar-powered, the kind they make for camping or emergencies, I have one just like it — and then lights a row of candles in front of what looks like an altar. There’s a crucifix, six different Madonnas, two Ganesh statues, three of Shiva, and assorted flavors of Buddha. Offerings of coins, shells, rocks, and gemstones fill ceramic bowls at the feet of each deity.

“An equal opportunity worshipper,” I observe.

She smiles at me. “We hedge our bets in the After.”  

No argument there. Though I never waited on prayers to save my ass. “Did one of these guys send you after us for some reason? Because I’m having a hard time getting my gray matter around why everyone seems to know who we are.”

“In a manner of speaking.” Theresa sinks into a puffy leather chair and waves us toward a loveseat opposite her. There’s a hole chewed in the corner of one cushion, but otherwise it’s impossibly pristine. Like something you’d find in a dressing room in an upscale boutique — softy, curvy, and expensive looking.

“What the hell does that mean?” I ask, dropping onto the eggplant velvet.

I glance at Levi, who, standing stiffly between the entrance and the altar, sticks out like a … well, a berserker in a boudoir. Theresa eyes him expectantly, and he pads across what must be at least three layers of rugs to sit beside me.

“Perhaps we can agree there are no souls in the room that require release at this time?” Her eyes move between his sword and my knife. I notice we’re mirror images of each other, sitting erect, each with a hand clenched over the hilt of a blade. I allow my hand to lower to the loveseat, but I don’t let go of my weapon, and neither does he.

Theresa sighs. “What it means is I have a gift. I learned about you in a dream.”

I give a dry chuckle. “Sounds more like a nightmare to me.”

Her gaze locks with mine, and there’s something scary behind her fixed smile. Not flesh-eater scary, more like she’s using her brain to feel around in my head for a light switch. After a few seconds the intensity fades, and she says, “I know this is an uncomfortable place for you. You think it’s dangerous to put your faith in other people. But you don’t need to be afraid of me. Or of any of us.”

She’s right. Give me a flesh-eater any day. “What do you want from us?”

She raises an eyebrow. “What do you want from us?”

It’s like she’s dropped a stun grenade. I was antsy the moment we stepped into that boat. I didn’t see a way out of it without leaving Levi for the flesh-eaters, but since then we’ve been traveling with no known escape route. Dead-ends are called that for a reason.

But survivors. A whole little village of them, self-sufficient and safe from the enemy, at least for the moment. It wasn’t something I’d ever figured into my long-term plan. Long-term plan. Who am I fucking kidding?

Tempting, and also dangerous. When you cast your lot with others, you resign yourself to their fate. It’s not a survivor mentality.

“What kind of life do you want for yourself, Mila?”

Chill bumps rise on my arms and I scowl at her. “That shit is creeping me out, and we don’t have time for games. Unless you want to tell us, straight up, why you’ve brought us here, this conversation is over.”

I glance at Levi for backup, and I’ve gotten to know him well enough in the last twenty-four hours to see that he’s not all here. I’d bet my blade that half his brain is still out there with that Amazon. (Make that valkyrie.)

Fucking great.

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